Baltimore County police Officer Tom Warehime sat down with a half-dozen Arbutus residents Wednesday night, and dove straight into one of the most persistent rumors he has gotten calls about and seen on social media over the last few months: that homeless residents of Arbutus are sleeping in the Arbutus Laundromat and using the machines as their restroom.
"How many of you know that the laundromat has been closed since December 1?" Warehime asked the people in the Wilkens Precinct conference room. Nobody knew, and those rumors, Warehime said, could not possibly be true.
Organized by Arbutus resident Svetlana Peshkoff, the group met with Warehime to discuss issues aired on the Arbutus Improvement Association Facebook page, a ghost of the association that Warehime said stopped meeting about four years ago.
In the past month, that Facebook page has seen heated debates regarding homeless people who spend time on East Drive and trash left in alleys.
"People were devolving into arguing about the different situations on the Facebook page as opposed to looking for solutions," Peshkoff said in an interview before the meeting. "So me and my big mouth decided to suggest that instead of just venting, we can see if someone in the police department can help."
"I'm afraid of people who are unstable," said resident Regina Feehely at the meeting, adding that the homeless residents of Arbutus with mental health issues make her worry about safety because of their "unpredictability."
Warehime's advice to residents concerned about the homeless in Arbutus was simple: Call 911 and ask for a wellness check.
Since Jan. 1, Warehime said the precinct has received 13 calls to check on homeless people in Arbutus.
He and other officers are trained in crisis intervention, and the county also has a mobile crisis team that can address a mental health emergency, he said.
But, he emphasized that sitting on a bench is not a crime, and he cannot compel anyone to go to a shelter.
"We've got some folks ranting and raving and screaming that they should all be locked up," Warehime said in an interview before the meeting. "But you can't lock somebody up for sitting in a bus stop."
Warehime urged Arbutus residents to have empathy for those experiencing homelessness. The people who spend time on East Drive all grew up in the area, he said. He knows them by name.
"Everyone has a story," Warehime said. And some do have mental health issues, while some have lost family, he said. Others just want to live out of a van. One young couple living in a nearby encampment, he said, is expecting a baby in May.
"It's a shame that we have a society where people live that way," Warehime said. "That's something you as citizens have to bring to your elected officials."
‘The negative stuff’
Feehely said that she lives in a quiet part of Arbutus, where residents "never, ever, ever see a police car."
But recent random crime, like young people allegedly jumping on the hoods of cars in Arbutus last month, affect the "quality of life," Feehely said.
"All the negative stuff gets all the attention, and it creeps into areas that are quiet," she said.
"But the negative stuff is mostly on social media," Warehime said.
Years ago, Warehime said, residents could discuss specific neighborhood concerns in person at Arbutus Improvement Association meetings. But about four years ago, the group's leader moved away, and nobody stepped up to keep it going, he said.
Now all that is left of the association is its Facebook page, where neighbors argue and spread rumors.
"You never know what someone's agenda is when they post something on social media," Warehime said.
He suggested that residents who are concerned about crime, college party complaints and other quality-of-life issues in their neighborhood seek solutions outside of social media.
For crime or noise or homelessness, call the police, he said. For rat problems, call code enforcement. For trash problems, call Councilman Tom Quirk's aide, Pete Kriscumas.
And Warehime pointed to neighborhood improvement groups that already exist in the area: the Wilkens Police Community Relations Organization, the Halethorpe Civic League, the Halethorpe Improvement Association, the Wynnewood Community Association and the Greater Arbutus Business Association.
Resident Jim Kenny suggested that those looking to get more involved in improving the community attend those other meetings with a goal in mind: to "learn how to bring the Arbutus Improvement Association back online."